by Martha Perego, director of membership and ethics, ICMA
The explosion of social media for formal and informal communication has raised ethical as well as practical questions for local government professionals and their organizations. As we close out National Ethics Awareness Month at the end of March, I’ve chosen social media as a topic that deserves ongoing attention.
Traditionally, government organizations have addressed the public through designated spokespersons and government-controlled channels. Residents also have expressed their views through public forums, letters to the editor, and informal conversations with friends and neighbors.
Twitter, Facebook, and other social media have changed all that, of course. Now anyone with access to a computer or mobile device can say practically anything, whether accurate, fair, or civil, to a huge audience. And they can do it with the absolute cloak of anonymity. Talk about a tectonic shift in how governments manage their communications and engage their residents or how professionals manage their reputations.
Social media also can really blur the lines between what’s personal and professional communication. Savvy (and ethical) communicators are careful not to use business email accounts for personal stuff. With all the other platforms, though, there can be a less obvious line of demarcation. You may have elected officials on your Facebook page. Or a Twitter feed open to a universe of followers. Or you may connect on Instagram with staff.
Here are some true situations that hopefully will inspire you to pause before you post, comment, or link:
- Sitting at home watching a presidential debate, a public information officer got so upset with the moderator that she posted a tweet urging him to “grow a pair.” Unfortunately, in the heat of the moment, she posted that on her work, not personal, account. Upon her termination, she said "I wasn’t planning to Twittercide my career. As you can imagine, I threw a giant pity party for myself yesterday."
- A technology company that does cybersecurity work for local governments wrote a blog post on the topic for ICMA. A county manager read the blog and offered a comment on the article noting that the company was “extraordinarily helpful as the county worked to enhance security for the county board of elections.” The company then took the comment and posted it on their website with the county manager’s photo.
- Following the March for Our Lives event, an assistant manager “liked,” and shared on his Facebook page, several signs calling for the area’s congressman to be defeated in the election. The congressman has publicly stated a lack of interest in promoting or supporting further legislation to restrict the sale or use of guns. The assistant added the note “If you aren’t with us, then you are against us” to one post.
As you decide what’s appropriate, you should apply the same ethical guidelines to social media as you would to other interactions. You have a right to express your opinion about issues, but think about the connection between your opinion and the ability to serve your community.
The use of social media raises other ethical questions as well, and they’re discussed in the Related Resources at the end of this post. As always, a review of the ICMA Code of Ethics may assist as you think about your social media interactions.
As ICMA’s director of membership and ethics, I welcome questions from members about their responsibilities under the ICMA Code of Ethics. If you want to talk about a situation you’re facing, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-962-3668. Ask before you act!